Reviews seem almost superfluous when dealing with a phenomenon like Susan Boyle. She exists in that netherworld of albums which are put out just before Christmas and are largely forgotten soon after, their main purpose being to sell by the bucket-load. It is, of course, almost impossible to dislike Boyle. As over-familiar as her rags-to-riches tale has become, it nonetheless retains a compelling power that this year saw it turned into a well-received stage musical. It helps that her talent is clear and undeniable, her voice offering an appealing and guileless charm which, when contrasted with her matter-of-fact personality, makes for a unique package. Ever since her career-making turn on Britain’s Got Talent people have wanted Boyle to do well, even if the subsequent material has been largely boilerplate ‘Mums and Grans’ affairs.
Still, there have been flashes of unexpected inspiration, most notably on 2011’s Someone To Watch Over Me which found her collaborating with Emeli Sandé and covering Depeche Mode and Tears For Fears. Yet if it was her most interesting record to date, it was also her least successful with its 1.3 million sales showing a steep decline from the 9 million sold of 2009’s I Dreamed A Dream. Boyle is signed to Simon Cowell’s Syco and, as befits a label almost entirely made up of reality TV product, commerce is king. So, almost certainly as a direct result of her commercial decline, Standing Ovation: The Greatest Songs From The Stage plays it safe, clearly calculated to remind listeners why they first fell in love with Boyle. Its well-worn concept of songs from musicals even allows Boyle to return to Les Miserables, original home of what became her signature tune I Dreamed A Dream. The result, Bring Him Home, is one of the more successful songs here, offering glimpses of passion behind her pure voice and an interesting twist on a song which was originally written for a male voice.
Unfortunately, in consisting of material which has already been covered by countless others, the album cannot help but highlight that Boyle is not a great interpreter of song. Her straight readings of You’ll Never Walk Alone and Memory are certainly vocally accomplished but they are unexciting. A hesitant, respectful take on The Winner Takes It All finds Boyle’s sweetness wanting compared to Agnetha Fältskog‘s fascinating gloom (and in including a song with a history clearly preceding its inclusion in the jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, it stretches the concept to breaking point.) A funereal version of Send In The Clowns, meanwhile, is heavily in the shadows of Barbra Streisand‘s far superior version on her similarly-themed The Broadway Album, an artistic triumph which shows how such projects need not be straightforward affairs. Streisand is also brought to mind with Michael Crawford‘s re-tread of The Music Of The Night, a song they recorded together in 1993. Boyle holds her own against a Crawford who is, it must be said, incredibly hammy here but the song has been done better elsewhere.
The album finds more interesting ground with the relatively lesser-known Out Here On My Own (from Fame) where Boyle’s voice is, whether by accident or design, stretched and strained. It reveals a tantalising rawness which suggests weary experience in contrast to the innocent air that hangs over much else here, not least the version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow where Boyle’s youthful tone serves her well. This cover takes its cue from Eva Cassidy‘s popular rendition and while it offers nothing new, it’s all-but-impossible not to be won over by it. The same could be said of Boyle’s two duets with her childhood hero Donny Osmond, All I Ask Of You and This Is The Moment. Again, there is nothing musically revelatory but they serve an amiable purpose in the Boyle narrative.
The songs here are undoubtedly top-rate and Boyle’s versions are rarely less than serviceable. Given the album’s clear and unambitious aim of returning Boyle to her audience’s affections, it’s a modest success. Artistically, however, it’s largely uninspired and completely undemanding. It’s a clear catch-22 that Boyle’s audience are turned off by quirkier song choices yet it’s impossible to imagine her enjoying a long career based on unadventurous covers of songs everyone owns several times over. Whatever the future holds, her story’s emotional pull ensures that you can’t help but hope for a happy ending rather than the diminishing returns which her trajectory to date suggests lies ahead.